Making an effective battle tank is no small undertaking, even in the best of times. Between the complexity of the machines, high costs, and stress of combat, it’s a wonder any of them worked at all, let alone worked well. For all the tip-top tanks that rolled out during WWII, there were also a fair number of duds. Some proved to be wholly inadequate for combat, while others didn’t even make it that far.
From the laughably weak Italian tanks to the blind Russian bear to the asbestos-coated Japanese deathtrap, this collection looks at the worst tank designs of the international conflict.
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Panzer VIII Maus (Germany)
The largest tank ever built, the oddly named 188-ton Maus ("mouse") was a thoroughly impractical idea at the best of times, let alone for a nation facing desperate shortages of fuel, materials, and men. The idea of the ultra-super-heavy tank first took root in 1942, when the invasion of the Soviet Union exposed great weaknesses in German armor in action against Soviet tanks.
To appease Hitler’s wildly impractical demands for the new tank, the Maus underwent a series of design changes over the course of a tortuous development period. Initially slated to be 100 tons, its weight nearly doubled. Before a final design had even been settled upon, Hitler ordered production to begin in November 1942. Trials without a completed turret began the following year.
Ultimately, the Maus never even came close to combat; only two half-finished prototypes were completed. The item image is a combination of the two; after the Soviets captured it, they mounted the V2 turret to the V1 hull. Even if the absurdly wasteful design issues are put to one side, the Maus had some serious drawbacks in combat.
It only ran at about 12 mph, so it wouldn’t catch up with other tanks. Even though its thick armor would be impervious to most anti-tank weapons, its massive size and slow speed would have been easy pickings for Allied air support. It would also have been an absolute nightmare to maintain and run. Bear in mind the desperate fuel shortages the Germans dealt with throughout the war, and it's a wonder this contraption ever left the drawing board. Hitler’s inferiority complex directly lead to one of the worst tanks ever conceived.
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The Bob Semple Tank took its name from the larger-than-life New Zealand politician given the task of putting it together. The situation in 1940 seemed grim for the Allies, with the British cornered in Europe and the threat of a Japanese invasion looming, so New Zealand enacted a program to convert tractors into serviceable tanks. With limited materials or expertise, Semple and his team based the design on information gleaned from an American postcard.
It was essentially a tractor wrapped in steel with six machine guns poking out at different angles. To change gear, it had to come to a complete stop, which as you’d imagine might be a little disadvantageous in combat. One of the gunners of the eight-man crew had to lie on a mattress to squeeze into the cramped compartments, so he was pretty much done for it if the tank caught fire. With armor less than half an inch thick, the crew wasn’t well protected. At least the tanks were cheap, at about $5,000 apiece, which works out to about $100,000 in today’s terms. For reference, a modern Abrams tank costs roughly $6 million.
In the end, only four “Big Bobs” were built and mostly used to raise morale. For all the design flaws, getting anything to run in the circumstances was no small achievement.
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T-35 (Soviet Union)
The T-35 was the pride of the Red Army until it was actually used in combat. Its concept was outdated from the start; a five-turret behemoth, it was a battleship on some seriously slow-moving treads. It featured prominently in interwar propaganda, making for a grand sight on parade grounds in the 1930s.
Its performance in the field was another matter. The T-35 required a 10-man crew to operate and many more to maintain. When it was first used in significant numbers against the Germans in 1941, more than half of the 48 tanks broke down before reaching the front. The rest were destroyed or captured without inflicting much damage on the enemy. For such a heavy tank, the T-35 was surprisingly brittle - it was simply too big for thick armor and had to make do with 35 mm plating.
Apparently, one was used in the defense of Berlin in 1945 by the Germans. The museum at Kummersdorf was raided for anything that could be used to protect the capital. A T-35 was apparently one of the last-ditch tanks used. It proved as worthless at the end of the war as it did in the beginning.
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It’s almost cheating to include Italian tanks here, especially one that’s technically a tankette rather than a tank, but we’re still going to. The L3/35 was Italy’s most-used tank in WWII, but it began its undistinguished service life in the inter-war conflicts in Ethiopia and Spain. It performed poorly in both. Several were knocked out of action in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War by an opposition severely lacking modern weapons. Some were simply overturned and set ablaze by massed infantry attacks.
That the L3/35 was still in service in WWII is a testament to how unprepared the Italians really were. Against armies with modern equipment, the wafer-thin armor was about as effective as a hull made from linguini. Its armament was similarly laughable - it didn’t have a turret, just two 8 mm machine guns from the affixed position. It was soon pulled from frontline service and used in occupation armies instead.